Sunday, February 25, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part IX: How Doctor Polidori Failed at Success

Doctor Polidori always claimed that the idea for "The Vampyre" came from a certain lady he knew while in Geneva, generally identified as the Countess Breuss, a Russian noblewoman whose house was a popular hangout for high society that summer. He dashed out the story in two or three days, and left it in the Countess's possession, apparently thinking nothing more of it.

But in April 1819, the story appeared in The New Monthly Magazine. Moreover, it was attributed not to Polidori, but to Lord Byron, and accompanied by a letter purporting to be from a traveler who was a huge fan of Lord Byron. Said traveler, finding himself in Geneva, decided to explore Byron's old haunts and find what he could about Byron's stay, and in so doing met with Countess Breuss and obtained from her "The Vampypre," along with "the Tale of Dr. --------" (i.e., Ernestus Berchtold) and an outline of Frankenstein, all of which he helpfully passed along to The New Monthly.

British copyright law in this period being quite lax, the magazine was able to publish "The Vampyre" without consulting the author, real or purported. Not only that, but the publisher arranged for it to appear as a standalone book, set to be released a few weeks after the magazine hit shops.

At least that's the official story. What actually happened in harder to pin down.

The magazine's editor, A. A. Watts, gave a very different explanation to Byron's publisher, John Murray, which Murray described in a letter to Byron:
The Editor of that journal has quarrelled with the Publisher, and has called this morning to exculpate himself from the baseness of the transaction. He says that he received it from Dr. Polidori for a small sum; Polidori averring that the whole plan of it was yours, and that it was merely written out by him. The Editor inserted it with a short statement to this effect; but, to his astonishment, Colburn [the publisher] cancelled the leaf.... He informs me that Polidori, finding that the sale exceeded his expectation and that he had sold it too cheap, went to the Editor and declared that he would deny it."
And Polidori did just that, writing a letter to The Morning Chronicle in which he took credit for the story and expressed outrage that it had been published under someone else's name without his permission. But despite contradicting the bulk of Watt's account, he does confirm a key point:
Mr. Watts, as Editor of that magazine, stated in his notice that the tale which accompanies the letters "we also present to our readers without pledging ourselves for its authenticity as the production of Lord Byron"; and he continues, "We should suppose it to have been committed to paper rather from the recital of a third person." This, however, after the publication of 700 copies, was cancelled by the publisher, and another notice inserted stating it to be decidedly his Lordship's, in direct opposition (as I am informed) to the Editor's will—who has since retired from the conduct of the magazine.
How Polidori knew this isn't clear. Did he get it from Watts? In that case we're seeing two slightly different versions of one man's tale, which could very well be an attempt by Watts to distance himself from the error. But conversely Polidori may have gotten his account from another employee of the magazine. This would explain one of the differences in the two accounts -- in Polidori's version, the original editorial note attributed the story to Byron but noted they couldn't confirm it, whereas what Watts told Murray makes it clear they knew Polidori was the author from the beginning, merely working off Byron's "plan," and were going to publish the story as such. The version Murray heard thus puts Watts in a better light, and makes the publisher look like a purveyor of lies, whereas what Polidori reports makes Watts and the publisher look equally foolish. The fact that Polidori has exact quotes from the original printing suggests his version is more accurate, but, for reasons that will soon become apparent, we can't take that for certain.

Polidori's letter to the newspaper complicated matters further by saying:
I at the same time wrote to the publishers of the tale in its separate form, and to those of the magazine, to stop its sale under his Lordship's name. On Monday the publishers of the magazine called upon me, and promised it should be instantly announced as mine.... When I came to claim my share in the profits, I was offered £30, instead of nearly £300.
So both Watt and the doctor agree that Polidori tried to haggle over payment, but they disagree whether he was in on the scheme from the begin, or if he was trying to wrangle his fair share out of an unscrupulous publisher.

But Polidori's letter to The Morning Chronicle never appeared in print. In the preface to Ernestus Berchtold, Polidori explains that,
in  consequence of the publishers representing to me that they were compromised as well as myself, and  that immediately they were certain it was mine, that they themselves would wish to make the amende honorable to the public, I allowed them  to recall the letter which had lain some days at that  paper's office.
For his part, Lord Byron, who was by now living in Italy, first learned of "The Vampyre" through a newspaper aimed at British expats on the Continent, which featured an ad for a new story by him that he'd never heard of. He was incensed, not only because his name was being attached to someone else's work, but because he had an exclusivity agreement with Murray which this could threaten. He managed to hide his anger in a letter to the newspaper requesting a retraction:
I presume that it is neither unjust nor ungracious to request that you will favour me by contradicting the advertisement to which I allude. If the book is clever it would be base to deprive the real writer whoever he may be of his honours and if stupid I desire the responsibility of nobody's dullness but my own.
He added, "I have besides a personal dislike to 'Vampires,' and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets," which suggests that whatever his original design for his story, it would've evolved in a completely different direction.

Byron was more blunt to his publisher:
[Polidori] may do, say, or write, what he pleases, but I wish he would not attribute to me his own compositions. If he has any thing of mine in his possession, the MS. will put it beyond controversy; but I scarcely think that any one who knows me would believe the thing in the Magazine to be mine, even if they saw it in my own hieroglyphics.
So what is the truth of the matter? Did Polidori, as Watt claimed, submit the story himself, or was there really some anonymous traveler in Geneva who obtained it from Countess Breuss without understanding its provenance, and sent it to The New Monthly?

To figure that out, we have to look at what had happened to Polidori in the intervening three years.

When Byron let Polidori go, he gave the doctor £50 in salary and another £20 for the trip back to England. But Polidori had no desire to return home. Although he'd graduated from medical school, he'd had no luck in establishing a practice and been forced to move back with his parents. He'd taken the job with Byron in a desperate bid to get out of the house, but his father had opposed him going off with a man of such notoriety. The last thing Polidori wanted was to slink back home after getting fired.

Instead he set off to see his ancestral homeland of Italy. He stopped first in Milan, which at that time was under an oppressive occupation by the Habsburg Empire, which was trying to root out the republican spirit that had grown there under French occupation. Polidori fell in with a group of liberal-minded nobles and gentlemen, most notably the French author Stendhal, who had exiled himself there after the fall of Napoleon. But given the state of Milan, there wasn't much they could do besides party and gamble.

But Polidori's quarrelsome personality proved an ill fit for the Habsburg occupation. One night at the opera, the doctor picked a fight with a guardsman that got him arrested. As it happened, Lord Byron had arrived in the city recently and was at the opera that night, too. Upon learning what was going on, Byron intervened to get Polidori out of custody. But the next day Polidori received a notice from the governor that he was to leave the city within twenty-four hours or else. His friends attempted to get the exile rescinded, but to no effect.

Polidori spent several months roaming the country, taking what work he could as the personal physician to various British travelers -- who developed an unfortunate tendency to die under his care. (This doesn't seem to have been malpractice, but pure bad luck. He remained on good terms with the families of his patients, at the very least.) Eventually, though, Polidori found himself at loose ends and had no choice but to return home.

Once back in London, he resumed his attempts to set up a private practice, but to no avail.

And then tragedy struck. One evening while out in his carriage, he drove off the road and suffered a severe concussion. The prognosis was dire, and for a time his family was convinced he was going to die.

He didn't, though Harriet Martineau, a young lady who may have had a romantic eye upon him, later remarked that it would've been better if he had, for then "he would have remained a hero."

When Polidori regained consciousness, he seemed a different person. He'd always been prickly and quick to argue with people, but only in a scrappy, Italian kind of way. After the accident, though, he was meaner and lacked self-control, the sort of person who would borrow a large sum of money from a relative to pay his debts, only to blow it on gambling.

Which is a trait, you will note, that he now had in common with Ernestus Berchtold.

Indeed, there are many points of commonality between Polidori's post-Byron adventures and the novella. After being a hero in the Swiss war against France, Ernestus moved to Milan, where he took up with high society and was introduced to gambling and debauchery. This isn't to say that Ernestus is a stand-in for Polidori the way Aubrey is in "The Vampyre". For instance, the sequence where Olivieri falls into French custody is clearly inspired by Polidori's trouble in Milan, with Ernestus taking on the role of Polidori's friends.

But this means Polidori couldn't have written Ernestus Berchtold to completion in Geneva. This is hardly surprising -- Mary only managed a handful of chapters of Frankenstein while there; the whole book took nearly a year to complete. Though Ernestus Bechtold is only about half that length, it was still a chunky bit of writing. 

And yet the editorial note in The New Monthly claims the traveler in Geneva had provided them with Polidori's contribution to the writing contest. There is a possible innocent explanation. Recall that in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary's recollection of Polidori's story is only that a woman peeked through a keyhole and saw something dreadful. Perhaps that's all Polidori wrote while in Geneva, and that's what he left with Countess Breuss. If so, he may only have left a copy with her, or he may've retrieved the manuscript from The New Monthly during the contretemps over "The Vampyre" and decided to complete it -- after all, "The Vampyre" had received some acclaim, even if most of that was from the presumption that Byron had written it.

But I doubt it.


Because the ending of "The Vampyre" also seems to have an autobiographical element. Towards the end of the story, Aubrey's guardians become convinced he's going nuts and confine him to his room under a doctor's care. This isn't exactly what happened to Polidori, but the main elements are there. After his accident, he had to stay abed while he fully recovered, and his friends and family started viewing him as having something wrong in his head.

Which means, Polidori completed both stories in Britain, in which case only he could've submitted them to The New Monthly. This fits with Watts' account. Polidori brought "The Vampyre" to the magazine and told them he'd written it out based upon Byron's fragment and what Byron had told him of the rest of the story. Watts was willing to publish it with an editorial note to that effect, but the publisher overruled him. When Polidori found out, he was outraged both at being denied credit, and fearful that was opening himself to retribution from Byron. He wrote the letter to The Morning Chronicle hoping to cover himself, but was dissuaded from publishing it, though he did eventually offer a version of events in the preface to Ernestus Berchtold.

In any case, the whole sordid affair ruined whatever hopes Polidori had of a literary career. When Berchtold came out, it was roundly derided. His attempts at starting a medical practice also failed to go anywhere. For a while he considered changing career and going into law, but his self-destructive tendencies made that unlikely. Finally, after losing an immense sum on gambling, Polidori took his own life with a glass of prussic acid.

By that point, he was the third suicide to have come out of the Frankenstein summer.

NEXT TIME: "This World Is All Too Wide to Thee"

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